Unitarian Universalism: “Not Interested” v. “Opposed”

Sometimes something can be totally clear in my head but not end up that way on paper – or rather, computer screen. A couple of comments have indicated that I was unclear about something in last week’s post on Unitarian Universalism and diversity of belief. In that post I touched on some of the reasons some atheists object to the UU church. I wasn’t saying that these are the reasons non-UU atheists are not UU, but I didn’t make that clear enough.

Let me see if I can offer a bit of an example. Some parents involve their kids in Boy Scouts and/or Girl Scouts. Most don’t. The reasons why they don’t vary. Most are simply not interested – they have their kids in other activities, they don’t have the time for scouts, the format doesn’t appeal to them, there is no local chapter, it’s just not their thing, etc. However, some parents don’t involve their kids in Boy Scouts and/or Girl Scouts not because they are not interested but rather because they are opposed to those groups. An increasing number of people today oppose the Boy Scouts because that group discriminates against atheists and gay people. Or on a different note, many conservative evangelicals don’t put their daughters in Girl Scouts because o that group’s messages of female empowerment and sexual responsibility. In other words, there is a difference between not being involved in a group simply because you aren’t interested and not being involved in a group out of principle, i.e. because you find it find something about it objectionable.

I wrote last week a bit about new ways of thinking about building secular community, and praised an article suggesting that we broaden our understanding of what we mean by “church” in order to deprivelege religion. When I wrote last year about reclaiming Sunday mornings, many atheists replied enthusiastically, writing about the ways they’ve filled the times and seasons that used to be the terrain of organized religion. In other words, there are lots of atheists who simply feel no need for what the UU church seeks to offer. They’re not interested, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But I have also met a good number of atheists, both online or in person, who are not comfortable with the idea of building community with religious believers if doing so means they have to tone down their criticism of religion or appear to give religious beliefs a “pass.” I’ve met atheists who don’t think the congregational structure or minesterial position can be salvaged. Think of criticisms of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy or of interfaith work, for instance. In other words, there are some atheists who are not simply not interested in the UU church but actually oppose some of its underlying goals and practices.

When I wrote last week about the UU church’s embrace of diversity of belief, I was focusing on this second group – those opposed to the UU church – not the first group – those simply not interested in the UU church. Note this passage, for instance:

As I’ve spent time attending my local UU church and learning about Unitarian Universalism, I have come to understand the problem many atheists have with it, and it’s not just that some dislike ritual or congregational gathering or having someone called a “minister.”

My focus was on why some atheists have a problem with UU churches, not on non-UU atheists writ large. (And in this vein I probably should have said “some” rather than “many”, but given the vocal nature of the criticism interfaith receives I can perhaps be pardoned.)

I have absolutely no problem with the fact that most atheists are simply not interested in the UU church, and I understand why some atheists actively object to the UU church’s embrace of religious and spiritual diversity. I should have been more clear, however, in acknowledging the distinction between simply not being interested in something and actually having objections to it.

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